Workplace change has never been as rapid as it is today.
Globalisation and exponential increases in the use of technology have generated a 24/7 culture, where staff are often expected to work anytime and anywhere.
Yet, as anyone working in HR knows, this ‘always-on’ situation is a double-edged sword.
Employees today are generally working longer hours, leaving them less downtime and less time for family. Clearly, the problem has been exacerbated by the economic downturn.
Recent research has also highlighted the fact that most personnel are expected to remain connected to work during their holidays, for example. But for many, vacations are the only real quality time that they get to relax and recharge their batteries.
Given that work appears to be encroaching to such a degree into private and family life, it seems that more needs to be done to redress the balance – and what better time to consider such issues than during ‘Anywhere Working’ week, which starts today and is intended to promote the benefits of remote working to businesses and individuals.
But a recent survey by Origin Storage
of 1,000 office workers in the City of London revealed that, while initiatives such as remote working may have their benefits, an ‘always on’ culture also has its downsides. A huge 73% of those questioned said that they checked in with the office when they were on holiday, with 62% claiming that their boss expected them to do so.
Trust is key
A global poll conducted by recruitment agency, Robert Half
, among 1,600 executives in Singapore, Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand, also found that the situation was just as bad elsewhere. Some three out of five executives filtered through their work emails during their holidays, while a staggering 90% of employers in Singapore and Hong Kong expected their workers to go online when they were on vacation.
What all of this means is that, at the very least, HR professionals must provide clear guidance to both managers and staff as to what is considered acceptable and expected practice for matters such as holidays.
If communicating with the office during a vacation can’t be avoided, it is essential to establish acceptable modes of contact from the outset. For example, encouraging managers, colleagues or direct reports to prioritise text or emails by marking vital ones as urgent can be a good way to let someone know if a problem has come up that needs addressing immediately, not least because it can often be sorted out with just a quick phone call to the office.
But it can also help holiday-makers to allocate a specific time for checking any communications, perhaps at the start or the end of day, in order to minimise disruption to their ‘break’.
In this context, it is likewise worth remembering how empowering it can be to allow employees to rise to the challenge and handle difficult issues themselves while their bosses are away, however.
But there are a number of others ways that HR professionals can help to redress the balance of apparently ever-dwindling personal time. This includes providing staff with time off in lieu or introducing flexible working practices.
Part-time working and job sharing, flexible hours, parental leave and working from home are commonplace in many organisations today and are all proving to be successful tools for helping employees find a better work-life balance.
But all of these initiatives only really work if there is trust. It appears that many employers need to learn to trust their staff more, while employees must be professional and respectful of the privileges that they are given.
A flexible working survey undertaken by Regus earlier this year among 17,000 senior business people across 18 countries, however, painted a slightly concerning picture of how far trust currently extends in the workplace.
The study found that, although 59% of businesses enable personnel to exercise some level of flexibility in their working lives regardless of their seniority, age or service record, the rest believed that only senior staff were trustworthy enough to have such working practices extended to them.
This form of selection automatically excludes many employees that would benefit from a more family-friendly work environment, which includes junior talent with young families that organisations may have gone to great lengths to attract.
Training and the development of personal and professional skills in areas such as time and stress management can, of course, prove invaluable in helping staff to tackle some of the challenges faced in today’s workplace.
Today’s bite-sized learning programmes and e-learning tools are helping some organisations to address these issues head on and can cause less disruption to the working day than by using traditional classroom-based techniques.
But the introduction of clear working practices and robust policies is also essential to support remote and flexible workers as is good management practice.
Remote workers, for example, tend to operate more effectively when given monthly, weekly or even daily goals and objectives. They should also ideally be managed based on output rather than the number of hours worked, which can require an attitude change for some bosses.
Good communications using tools ranging from the phone to instant messaging, videoconferencing and social media are also vital, however.
Clearly the time has come for organisations to think through their approach to helping employees achieve a better work-life balance a little more carefully. HR and line managers must work together to provide the necessary guidance and support that employees need, with trust being an integral part of the process.
Those that fail to take appropriate action, however, run the risk of experiencing lower staff productivity and disengagement – despite the increasing numbers of hours that everyone is putting in.
Francis Marshall is managing director of learning and development provider, Cegos UK.